It later occurred to me that the topic is equally relevant (especially with the holidays approaching) to the marketers and content creators who are promoting these products. What follows is my take on how marketers can engage parents by recognizing and addressing their concerns.
As the holiday season inches ever closer, we’re bound to see a resurgence in debates over how much technology is too much, especially when it comes to gifts for kids. Between studies that say technology is harmful and horror stories of kids so addicted to tech that they never come out of their rooms, it can be a tough sell for marketers.
So what’s a tech marketer to do this holiday season?
My suggestion — as both a parent of tweens/teens and as a content marketer — is to focus on the pragmatic. Dig deep into what parents are really worried about and build your marketing around how to make parents more comfortable with how their kids use technology.
It turns out that many of the the things parents worry about aren’t new. Technology just makes it easier.
The most common parental fears
There’s bad stuff out there
No argument there. Sure, there’s bad stuff out there. But the world we grew up in had boogie men, too. You may recognize some of them when parents talk about the dangers of technology:
Unfortunately, pedophiles are as old as humanity. It’s true that, when we were growing up, they didn’t hang out on gaming sites, pretending to be kids to gain the trust of their prospective victims. Instead, they asked for helping looking for their lost puppy or needed directions to a make-believe destination. Even in the day of rotary phones and three TV channels, our parents still had to warn us about the evil in the world and teach us how to protect ourselves.
And they didn’t even have the luxury of hopping online to find out which of their neighbors was a registered sex offender.
Yes, technology makes it easier for pedophiles to come in contact with our kids. But it’s a matter of degree. The same dangers existed before the internet, and kids still had to learn how to navigate those dangers.
I don’t want my kids looking at porn any more than you do. And I’m well aware of how easy it is for kids to access it online (even if they’re not trying to). But let’s be honest: When we were growing up, kids who were curious about porn just looked under their big brothers’ mattresses…or maybe even in their fathers’ garages. Again, it’s a matter of degree.
Between YouTube and video games, there’s certainly plenty of violence online. That, also, is nothing new; it’s just in a different format. When we were growing up, it came in the form of Saturday-morning cartoons and Woody Woodpecker’s obsession with dynamite.
Or the endless hours we spent playing cops-and-robbers with toy guns. Is the pretend violence really that much worse just because it takes place via a game console rather than in the neighborhood streets? Sure, the results of gaming violence are more graphic visually, but let’s not pretend that the people we shot during cops-and-robbers weren’t just as “dead.”
Kids disappear into their rooms and don’t come out until they’re hungry
Also true. But when did we forget that this is a normal part of being a teenager? I never left my room when I was a teen. Does the fact that I was reading books rather than playing games make that much of a difference? Sure, I polished my reading skills, but as far as social isolation, there wasn’t a bit of difference.
Most teens go through a phase where they aren’t that interested in hanging out with good ol’ mom and dad. Today’s teens just have different methods of entertaining themselves than we did.
We can’t even pry them away from their phones at the dinner table
And I never came to the dinner table — or anywhere else, for that matter — without a book. It may be irritating and ill-mannered, but it can’t be blamed entirely on technology.
Technology is used for bullying
The internet and social media platforms didn’t invent bullying; they just made it easier. Rumors, lies, and insults about the less-than-popular kids still made the rounds at school; they just spread by word of mouth instead of text blasts.
And those embarrassing photos? Definitely much easier to share them today. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen before cell phones. It just took longer to pass a polaroid shot around by hand.
Technology is specifically designed to be addicting
Among the latest concerns over kids’ use of technology is that many games are designed to be addictive. Kind of like slot machines, right? And cigarettes. Instead of letting concerned parents and grant-funded studies create the illusion that this is the first time businesses have used psychology to get people to use more and more of their product, be transparent about how your reward and social sharing mechanisms are designed to increase gameplay. And give parents tips on how to recognize a developing problem.
It’s rewiring our children’s brains
Indeed it is, as this article from Psychology Today explains in detail. Technology is having a profound effect on things like attention span, focus, and memorization/recall of facts.
But is that necessarily bad?
Barring an EMP that knocks civilization back a century or two, we’re not going back. This hyper-connected world is here to stay — and it’s going to keep advancing, enmeshing itself even more intimately into our lives. (Seriously, my car texts me to tell me that it’s unlocked.) That’s the world our kids are going to be living in, and it’s our job to prepare them for that. Is shielding them from technology really better than teaching them to use it responsibly?
Both as a parent and as a marketer, I vote no.
Preparing our kids to live in a digital world
Philosopher Eric Hoffer once said:
“In times of change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists.”
It’s an old quote, but it serves as my guiding principle for directing my children’s use of technology and explains why I give them a lot more leeway than some parents do. I want them to be prepared for the world they’re going to live in, because the world I grew up in isn’t coming back.
It’s also a good foundation for technology marketing: Focus on where society is going and how hard it will be to succeed without mastering certain skills — and talk about how your products help kids master those skills.
What exactly does that mean, though? What skills do our kids need to function well in a digital, constantly connected world?
I’m sure there are many good answers to that question, but I like the skills the World Economic Forum puts forth as necessary for what they call “digital intelligence.” (I’m leaving out a few because I thought they were redundant, but you can find the whole list at the source):
- Management of digital identity: This includes learning to manage both the privacy of their personal data (social security number, medical history, etc.) as well as things that could impact their future (like knowing which Spring Break pictures NOT to put on Instagram).
- Mastery of digital skills: This is simply the ability to effectively and properly use available digital resources. It could also be expanded to include the speed with which they adapt to new technologies. And they definitely need to have it pounded into their heads that nothing on the internet ever really goes away.
- Digital safety: This means having the ability to recognize and avoid the many digital risks that are out there. For kids and teens, that usually means things like knowing how to respond to online bullying and how to recognize online “friends” who may not be who they say they are.
- Digital security: Security breaches are in the news nearly every day, and even multinational organizations are vulnerable. Kids need to develop digital “street smarts” so that they’ll know not to do things like click on a link in an email that’s supposedly from their bank (you do know that you should always open another tab and type in the address yourself, right?). It also includes things like password management, the risks of using public WiFi networks, etc.
- Digital emotional intelligence: We’ve all come across people who spew vitriol online that they would never say in public. Today’s kids need to learn that online relationships deserve the same code of conduct as “real life” relationships. They also need to learn to express their opinions and respond to the opinions of others with respect and humility.
- Digital rights: This addresses the still-evolving legal aspects of our connected world — things like copyright and ownership, for example. Most kids probably know that they can’t copy an online paper and submit it as their own, but they may not know that it’s just as illegal to copy a picture from Pinterest and use it on their own blog post. The digital world is also becoming increasingly regulated — especially regarding privacy — and kids need to know how to stay on top of and remain compliant with those regulations.
The message for marketers
Yes, there is danger in technology, and the people who are shouting warnings aren’t (entirely) wrong. But technology isn’t going away; on the contrary — it’s going to become ever more intimately enmeshed in our lives, and we have to learn how to live in that world.
Right now — today — we’re right at the tipping point. It’s time to focus on the future and start talking about how products targeted to tweens and teens help them develop the skills they’ll need to navigate the connected world they’ll live in as adults.
That starts, of course, with developing products that actually do help kid develop the skills they’ll need in the future.
From a marketing perspective, it’s a two-part message. The first is reaching out to parents who, like me, are nostalgic for the days when we ran through our neighborhoods in a pack, coming home only when we were hungry or when the street lights came on. It means gently reminding them that that world isn’t coming back and that, no matter how vigilant they are, they can’t hold back the tide of technology.
Second, it means educating parents on the skills children will need to navigate the hyper-connected world they’ll be living in as adults and talking about your products help develop those skills. No BS, though — this message will only resonate if it’s 1000% true.
The skills recommended by the World Economic Forum are a good place to start, and others will become more clear as newer technology develops. Now is the perfect time to start an open, honest, dialog between technology brands and concerned parents so that we can all raise children who are prepared to navigate the tech-driven world we’re building with competence, transparency, respect, and (one of the harder things to accomplish online) emotional intelligence.